I mentioned that we would look at some examples of pawn structure, both their strengths and weaknesses, within game positions. This week, we’re going to start doing just that. However, I want you to try a training method I use with my beginning students to get them used to employing and maintaining good pawn structure. This training method will also give those using it an introduction to using their King during the endgame as an active piece. This training method is a slightly modified version of the classic “pawn game” in which both players have only their pawns and their King.
To play this version of the game, both players set up their pawns on the starting squares used in a regular game of chess. Their King sits on its starting square. As per the rules of the game, White moves first. In the traditional “pawn game,” the player who successfully captures all their opponents’ pawns wins the game. In my version, you win the game by checkmating your opponents’ King. Even if you capture all your opponent’s pawns, you still must deliver mate.
Because both players can promote pawns and end up with pieces, such as multiple Queens, any pawn that promotes becomes a big threat to the enemy King. Therefore, you need to consider several strategic ideas. Do you count on good pawn structure to advance your pawns across the board? Do you use your King to help get pawns to their promotion square? Do you first go after your opponents’ pawns and then concentrate on your own pawn promotion? Players must employ several strategies simultaneously in order to win.
Beginners often have trouble with planning. They create plans that are too stiff. A beginner’s plan is often “I’m going to make this move and when my opponent makes that (very specific) move, I’ll counter with another move.” Of course, that last move is completely dependent on the beginner’s opponent making a move that benefits the player with this plan. This is wishful thinking chess, which doesn’t win games. Unfortunately, your opponent has their own plan, and it generally involves moves that allow them to win the game (not you). Beginners need to learn how to make flexible plans that can change as the positional environment changes. This training game will punish anyone employing “wishful thinking” to their playing! Don’t count on your opponent making bad moves that aid your plan. Think about the best move they could make to counter your move. Pretend you’re playing your opponents’ position when considering a move. Doing so will reveal any problems with your candidate move. So, what strategies should you use?
The first step is to think in terms of offense and defense. While you need to get at least one pawn to its promotion square, your opponent is trying to do the same. Therefore, you need to be offensive, getting those pawns across the board, while being defensive, stopping your opponents’ pawns from reaching their promotion squares. While you want to be offensive to win, beginners tend to be too offensive, throwing everything into attacks or short-term plans and not considering weaknesses within their own position. Using the idea of balancing offensive with defense within this training game, you’ll be able to better manage the two within a regular game of chess.
The next strategy has to do with pawn structure. Beginners tend to randomly move pawns towards their promotion squares, which generally costs them those pawns. The creation of pawn chains will make it more difficult for your opponent to stop your pawns from being promoted, especially when both players are using their King to defend their pawns and attack enemy pawns. This brings me to the next strategy, bring your King into the game!
As chess instructors, we teach King safety above all else! Beginners take this as “don’t use your King for anything and keep it safely tucked away.” It turns out, that during the endgame, the King is a valuable fighter that can lead his pawns to their promotion squares while stopping enemy pawns dead in their tracks. In this training game, the only piece you have until a pawn promotion is the King. Use it! With that said, you need to be careful because should your opponent promote one of their pawns into a Queen, your King will become a target for her majesty! Therefore, you need to make sure your opponent doesn’t get any pawns to their promotion squares while pushing yours towards their promotion squares.
The reason I suggested this training game or exercise is because it will make clear the very ideas we’ve looked at over the last few articles. When I was first learning the game, I found that what I learned was solidified into my thought process once I had experienced in an actual game. I found this to be the best way to take what you’ve learned and master it. I want you to play through this training exercise while thinking about what we’ve looked at regarding pawns and pawn structure. We’ll reconvene next week and look at some examples from my students who have played this training exercise game and compare them to some actual endgame positions. See you then!